Madras Miscellany History & Culture

The first church in British Madras

It’s generally believed British Madras’s first church is St Mary’s in the Fort. Little known is that predating it by nearly 50 years was St Andrew’s, dating to 1642. Intriguingly, this was a Roman Catholic church Andrew Cogan, Agent of Fort St George, an Anglican settlement, permitted Fr. Ephraim de Nevers to build. He had persuaded the Capuchin Friar headed for Pegu, Burma, to stay in Madras and minister to the East India Company’s numerous Portuguese employees and the fisher-folk just outside the Fort.

The church, built like a shed as seen in the accompanying 1673 map, ran a school. And saintly Fr. Ephraim, who permitted the Anglicans to worship in his church whenever it was free, taught in the school English, Portuguese and Indian children the three R-s. Only lack of continuity prevents St. Mary’s School in Armenian Street, which descends from this school, from claiming to be the oldest Western-style school in British India.

St. Andrew’s, aka the Portuguese Church, was built just outside the north wall of what became called the Inner Fort. Its location became known as Portuguese Square. Today, it’s the parking lot of the Fort’s tower block. The Church was built as a more permanent structure in 1675, as seen in the accompanying portion from Pitt’s map of 1712. It was rebuilt again in 1721, perhaps to rival, in the north, St Mary’s in the south. When the outer walls of the Fort were constructed by 1666, both churches were within them.

Following the French occupation of Madras and its return, the Company ordered St Andrew’s demolished. This was done in 1752. Eventually, compensation of 12,000 pagodas (about ₹ 35,000) was paid and the Capuchins were allowed to build a church where the old Portuguese cemetery was on Armenian Street. This was done between 1772 and 1775. Replacing it in time came St Mary’s Co-Cathedral and St Mary’s School.

Even less known than this history is the fact that there’s still a Catholic St Andrew’s in the city and that the Kirk is not the only eponymous church in Madras. Coja Petrus Uscan had from the 1730s a private chapel in Vepery, where St Matthias now is. This was maintained by the Capuchins till they were ousted in 1749, depriving the Catholics of the vicinity a place for worship. But it was 1830 before their prayers were answered with St Andrew’s, built by Italian Capuchin Fr Felix, being consecrated on Kalathiappa Mudali Street near Perambur Barracks Road.

This is said to be the mother church of the Votive Shrine in Kilpauk and the Lourdes Shrine in Perambur. But distinguishing it is that its pastors have included the first two Archbishops of Madras, Dr Joseph Colgan and Dr John Allen, an Archbishop of Bangalore, P Thomas, and a Bishop of Nellore, W. Bouter.

Mons. Thomas, pastor from 1931 to 1939, started in the parish many a Catholic association, like the Legion of Mary and the Catholic Workers’ Association. The latter, the first in the country, gave Catholic workers an alternative to Communist and other Leftist thought. He was its first President, K O Anthony was Vice President and V J Arokiaswamy Secretary. I doubt whether Fr Ephraim would have dreamt of such modern thinking when he brought Roman Catholicism to Madraspatnam.

Bulleting along

Responding to a couple of my recent notes on Madras’s automobile industry, Maddy from the US, who’d once worked with Easun’s, reminds me that this Group too “had its beginnings in the auto industry.” Its founders, K Easwaran Iyer and K R Sundaram Iyer, were two others from Kalladaikurichi who grew as successful entrepreneurs in Madras in post-Independence years starting almost from scratch.

Arriving in Madras in 1936, they began life as fitters in a cycle importer’s shop. Three years later they started their own shop, Royal Cycle Motors Co, retailing Raleighs, Hercules and others. Its success had them branching out into engineering project work under the name Easun (amalgamating their names—Ea-Sun) Engineering. They also saw that from cycles to motor-cycles was logical progression and in 1946 started Madras Motors to import Norton, Matchless and Royal Enfield bikes.

With Royal Enfields being favoured by the Police and Army, business was good. It became better when in 1952 the Army ordered 800 350cc Enfields from them – provided they were produced locally. So a joint venture was entered into with the UK principals, and Enfield India (1955) began producing the bikes in a factory established in Tiruvottriyur. By 1957, much of the manufacture was being done there with tooling transferred from the UK. Meanwhile, the parent company was fading out in Britain and by 1970 had closed.

By 1980, over 2 lakh 350cc Bullets were on the Indian roads. But then came Japanese competition which was not taken head-on with modernisation, particularly as greater attention was on the successful larger scale Easun activities by now spread over several fields. In 1993, Enfield India was sold to Eicher Motors, Delhi. And the young man who took it over, Siddhartha Lal, breathed new life into it.

Re-engineered, but without losing its traditional features, the Bullet is today thuk-thukking along with its characteristic beat but a new vitality. Over 650,000 were sold in 2016 and even more in 2017. With the 750cc also planned, a million Bullets seem possible this year.

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Printable version | Feb 19, 2020 11:27:36 PM |

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